‘Sprung up from sandy earth’
It is said that Georgia Southern was born of humble farm beginnings. It’s all the more fitting then that historian Delma Presley would find himself driven to explore the roots of the region so closely intertwined with those of his own family.
It was 1969 when Presley and his wife, Beverly, arrived in Statesboro on an offer from iconic University professor and chair Fielding Russell to teach English at Georgia Southern. Through the 1970s, Presley’s love of language and literature and his training from Mercer, Baptist Theological Seminary and Emory served him well in his academic pursuits. Yet, in the back of his mind an idea was forming — one that became increasingly focused with the passage of time and led to a gradual shift.
Presley’s passion was focusing less on classical lit and more on south Georgia grit.
“I decided that I was going to try to understand the people of south Georgia,” he said. “My father grew up in Laurens County — a farmer’s boy. I wanted to know the people: why the people lived this way, who the people are, what their values are. This was one of my overriding concerns when I came here. And so, gradually I found a way to do that by becoming active in local history.”
Presley’s father left his south Georgia farm in the midst of the Great Depression for a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in north Georgia. “He joined the CCC boys and moved up to north Georgia where they built roads and parks and that sort of thing,” said Presley.
Growing up in the Blue Ridge foothills of Stephens County, the younger Presley was fascinated by his dad’s stories of south Georgia. “He talked about his grandfather who was a timber raft hand. They’d cut trees in the fall and let them dry out, and in the spring they’d drift them down to Darien. Then he’d walk home. My grandfather would come back with all these tales of Darien.”
Those stories eventually came to bear on his career. He continued to teach, but in 1971, he and history professors George Rogers and Frank Saunders received a grant to study the local Deloach Primitive Baptist community. “That was my first effort in that area,” he said. “It turned out well, so we kept getting grants. We got grants through the `70s until I went to the Museum and then we carried it on there.
“It was basically an effort to work with other people to understand who we are, where we came from, and what our values are,” said Presley. “I became interested in folklore — what the great stories are in this area. I guess we all evolve.”
And so he did. In 1982, with a tip of the hat to his grandfather’s timber work, he organized Project R.A.F.T. (Restore Altamaha Folklife Traditions) as a way to honor the memories of the men who floated timber down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers in the early 20th century. A tremendous success, the project was coordinated with folk life festivals along the river and its message continues to be shared with others more than 30 years later.
That year heralded an official career shift when he became the first permanent director of the new Georgia Southern Museum, leaving the classroom and delving full time into stories about the people of south Georgia. For 17 years he enthusiastically embraced exhibits on the region’s history, culture, geology, zoology and botany while independently writing and researching.
Retiring from the Museum in 1999, he continued to study, interpret and organize local and regional historical events. As the University was approaching its 2006 centennial observance, he agreed to take on a massive task at the request of former President Bruce Grube — that of recounting Georgia Southern’s first 100 years.
The result was the 291-page definitive history of the University, The Southern Century: Georgia Southern University, 1906-2006.
“I feel that the true story of Georgia Southern needs to be understood and told,” said Presley. “I got at the true story, I think, in The Southern Century. I wrote the book and I fell in love with the story even more. I realized that not only was Georgia Southern a special place, but Statesboro had some unique qualities that made this place happen to begin with. I think that’s important, too.”
As for the future, Presley is committed to doing all he can to ensure that the people of south Georgia are aware of their history, and that it is seen by others in its proper context.
“I was very fortunate to be able to fulfill some of the personal ambitions that I had to understand my past and my father’s past,” he said. “And, I hope to make a contribution to people’s understanding of life in south Georgia.” – David Thompson
Presley in Print
In a salute to Georgia Southern and those who led its founding, development and transition to a major university, Del and Beverly Presley have authored Georgia Southern University, a pictorial history and part of Arcadia Press’ Campus History Series.
“The book is about the community, the leaders of the College, the changes – the art of leadership,” he said. “It’s about students and how they have molded this place, and athletics, too.”
The couple has focused on those who pushed for the establishment of a college in Statesboro, like visionary Mayor Lonnie Brannen, those like President Guy Wells who saw the University through its early trials, and present-day men and women who guide its continuing evolution.
“Georgia Southern has always had the ability to adapt to change,” said Presley. “A lot of people don’t have that foresight. I don’t think Georgia Southern has been given the kind of regard that it should. That’s another reason we wanted to write the book — to give the kind of rationale for our existence that people need to appreciate. We wanted to tell that story.”
In addition to The Southern Century and Georgia Southern University, Presley has authored or co-authored numerous works on local and regional history including Images of America: Bulloch County with Smith C. Banks; Images of America: Statesboro with Smith C. Banks; Okefinokee Album with Francis Harper; and Dr. Bullie’s Notes: Reminiscences of Early Georgia and of Philadelphia and New Haven in the 1800s with James Holmes.
He’s a distinguished scholar and researcher, but Del Presley’s interests and expertise range far afield. He has:
- Known and once read: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and German
- Earned a divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Coached Georgia Southern’s cross country team
- Served as president of the Ga. Association of Museums and Galleries (GAMG)
- Received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities by the Ga. Humanities Council
- Been named a Legend of the Arts by Statesboro’s Averitt Center for the Arts
- Received the Lifetime Achievement Award (GAMG)
- Been named Professional of the Year (GAMG)
- Received the Educator Award (GAMG)
- Written, directed and produced “The Last Raft” television documentary
- Authored “The Lighterd Knot” musical drama
- Written “A Place to Call Home: Statesboro the Musical”
- Been named Professor of the Year, Georgia Southern College
Presleys Establish Exhibit
To document and preserve for posterity a sense of daily campus life, Del and Beverly Presley have provided the $25,000 lead gift for a permanent Museum exhibit.
“Georgia Southern University – An Inspiring Past, a Promising Future: The Presley Exhibition” is housed in the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center and tells the history of the University through personal stories and mementos of the University’s alumni, faculty and staff.
“Our exhibit tells the story of the development of Georgia Southern,” said Museum Director Brent Tharp, Ph.D. “We’ve gathered items that tell us about the lives of faculty and students, not with official documents, but with the kind of things that were used day-to-day and defined their college experiences.”
Tharp said there are 200-300 items that range from clothing to report cards and from scrapbooks to trophies. Major artifacts will rotate as new acquisitions are received, he said.
The Presleys hope that visitors to the exhibit will take away a sense of the University’s determination to overcome adversity and accomplish feats that many said could not be done.
“It’s good to expose the story to people who visit even briefly,” Presley said, adding that it’s important to offer even casual campus visitors the opportunity to “catch some of the spirit of what we’re trying to do.”
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